Weird Kitties Review: Ghost Champagne by Charlie Jane Anders

This article first appeared on the Eruditorum Press site on 4 October 2015.

I mean, the title is brilliant just on its own.

‘Ghost Champagne’ may well be the best short story of Charlie Jane Anders’ career so far, which, as our host has pointed out in the past, is really saying something. Anders is fond of dusting off old storytelling standards, and so it becomes tempting to fall back on old reviewing standards when describing her work; I laughed, I cried, I was moved unlike anything else I have read this year, etcetera, etfuckingcetera. But while that may be an accurate summation of my reaction, the fact is that no review of this story can possibly be as engaging as the story itself. So please. Just read it. I promise you, it’ll be worth your while.

But since we’re already here, we might as well do the plot summary: our main character is a twentysomething young professional with a lovely if slightly useless boyfriend, a crushingly dull day job and an ambition to break into stand-up comedy, with the story opening with a combined stand-up set and internal monologue. It’s a dizzying combination which is at first mildly disorienting, but perfectly sets up the themes of the story; our narrator is trapped inside her own head, constantly performing for an audience which seems entirely apathetic. It’s also a perfect summation of Anders’ general style; the reinvigoration of old tropes by approaching them at a completely new and slightly oblique angle. Immediately afterwards the titular ghost intrudes, and that’s all you’re getting from me. Trust me, you’ll want to experience this plot for yourself.

The virtues of this story are obvious from the start. It is immensely funny, with a tremendous gift for the one-liner, with the comedy taking a suitably morbid turn towards the end, an inversion which Anders handles impeccably. There are also an abundance of genuinely touching moments, building to a bittersweet conclusion which marks a triumphant end to this effortlessly masterful story. What’s most remarkable is the story’s sheer economy of language; Anders delivers a host of fascinatingly flawed characters and a consciously slipshod, non-linear narrative, and not a word of it is wasted. But then, this is a comedy (of sorts), so I suppose it makes sense. It’s all in the timing, after all.

‘Ghost Champagne’ is as haunting and intoxicating as the name implies. And the fact that it’s available for free makes me feel like I’ve been handed a bottle of moët with the Sunday papers. I could not recommend this more highly.

 

Weird Kitties Review: Woman at Exhibition by E. Lily Yu

This article first appeared on the Eruditorum Press site on 27 September 2015.

Fittingly enough for a story hung up on the visual arts, the appeal of ‘Woman at Exhibition’ is difficult to put into words.

 

For one thing, the plot overview sounds a little bit twee and hipsterish; a young woman has a not-quite-argument with her fiancée, and goes to an art exhibition to get away from it. She’s struck by the beauty of one painting in particular, and in a Hannibalistic version of Stendhal syndrome, starts to eat it. From there things manage to get even stranger, as our protagonist is shown a series of other paintings, and the story becomes a kind of Angela Carter short crossed with an art catalogue. It’s an intriguing idea, but it doesn’t quite explain what makes this story so special.

Part of it is that Yu’s prose is simply gorgeous. Yu has a knack for memorable phrases and the self-awareness to know when to undercut her more flowery passages with moments of domesticity, such as the wonderful moment early on: “Luke slung his saxophone over his shoulder and kissed her. The touch of his mouth sent sparks crackling and snapping through her, bright as magnesium, and she softened into him. The saxophone bumped against her hips.”

Yu manages to vividly characterise her story’s main players in the small amount of text she has to work with, and displays a good ear for dialogue. But what really makes this story stick in the mind is the anger which animates it. As the title suggests, this is a story about how women are treated in the world of art, and Yu makes a number of barbed comments about the male gaze and female interiority in the visual arts, giving the whole thing an air of eloquent and righteous anger under the elaborate, painterly surface.

By turns sweet, funny, dark and bitter, ‘Woman at Exhibition’ is a beautiful thing, and more than deserving of consideration at this year’s Hugo Awards. Its mesmerising power and bomb-throwing rage make it the equal of any story I have read this year, science fiction or otherwise. It’s well worth checking out, so long as you don’t get peckish. This is a story that bites back.

Weird Kitties Review: Frankenstein by The Mechanisms

Last year, Philip Sandifer announced a project called the Weird Kitties, where he solicited short reviews from his readers of SF works they considered Hugo Award-worthy, so people could take them into consideration when voting for the 2015 Hugos. The project sadly didn’t last very long, but I managed to get in there with three reviews of SF stories I loved last year, the first of which was this. I had gotten really into The Mechanisms after reviewing them a month of so earlier, so I was keen to share that love in this review of their latest song. I’m quite proud of these reviews, and it was an honour to have my writing on such a brilliant site as Eruditorum Press. This article first appeared there on 13 September 2015.

If you’ve ever thought that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have been better as a prog rock ballad, this new song from the UK-based steampunk folk band The Mechanisms looks to have you covered. Retelling the classic gothic tale as a ten-minute song about a rogue AI, Frankenstein, while perhaps the least grandiose of the Mechanisms’ projects to date, is still a wonderful piece of work, and crackles with the same energy as their lengthier albums.

The story is told in one long song, with linking narration putting one in mind of a geekier version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. The tale concerns a far-future world where a scientist named Victoria Frankenstein creates a revolutionary AI, and… honestly, you know how the story goes from there.

Initially it might seem a bit of a disappointment, after three albums of giddy textual play in established musical genres and mythical traditions, to see the Mechanisms doing a straight pastiche of a specific text. But the band, to their credit, seem to realise the dangers of this approach, and turn them to their advantage. At ten minutes long the song is tight and focused, avoiding the slightly slipshod nature of their longer and more complex albums, and dialling back a bit on the usual self-indulgence. There’s also a genuinely clever twist at the end, which manages to convey a sense of shock as well as ironic inevitability.

But what really sells it is the technical side of things, which is excellent. The singing and instrumentation are both top-notch, with the shifts in tone handled deftly by the introduction of new musical techniques as the song goes on. As ever, the Mechanisms manage to turn what could easily have been a one-gag premise into magnificent entertainment by sheer skill and chutzpah.

This is a song which has clearly had a lot of thought put into it, as well as an awful lot of effort and talent And it’s that sense of passion which makes this song such a worthwhile piece of storytelling. These a clearly a group of people who care deeply about what they do, and long may they continue to do it.